Greenpeace International today released new photographic and satellite evidence of peatland fires in and around the palm oil concession areas of Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) members operating in the Indonesian state of Riau on the island of Sumatra.
Meanwhile, leading consumer companies in the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) met in the Indonesian capital Jakarta today to discuss sustainability issues related to the palm oil sector.
“The fires are continuing to burn in Sumatra,” said the head of the Indonesia Forest Campaign, Bustar Maitar. “Rather than pay lip service to sustainability, these companies should instead take decisive action to end deforestation.”
The fires in Riau caused a choking haze of pollution to spread across western Malaysia and Singapore, and led to states of emergency being declared in the worst affected districts in Sumatra and in towns in the Malaysian state of Johor, where the Air Pollutant Index reached 746 on Saturday. The smog spread to southern Thailand on Thursday.
A pollutant index reading above 300 is defined as hazardous and a sustained reading of above 400 can be life-threatening to ill and elderly people.
Pollution levels have now dropped in Singapore and Malaysia, but one town in western Malaysian, Seremban, still recorded an unhealthy level of 119 today.
Indonesians on Sumatra have suffered the pollution from the annual slash-and-burn clearance for years, and no concrete action has been taken to remedy the situation. Again this year, local people are choking under the haze and having to seek medical treatment for all manner of haze-related ailments.
Malaysians are also reporting breathing problems, headaches, eye problems, and skin rashes.
Indonesian fire-fighters are overwhelmed with the task they face and have been battling the blazes for two weeks. Fires on peatland are notoriously difficult to extinguish, and it can take hours to put out a blaze on just one hectare of land.
“The big RSPO palm oil companies are more interested in playing the blame game than finding long-term solutions to end deforestation,” Maitar said. “When companies try to absolve themselves of responsibility for the current disaster by pointing to their no-burning policies – like Sime Darby has done – it shows they are trying to distract attention away from the true drivers of this choking haze wave.
“Decades of forest destruction and drainage of peatland by the palm oil sector – RSPO members included – has helped dry up Riau’s peatlands. This has created a ticking time bomb for the kind of environmental disaster we are experiencing at the moment.
“Major traders like Wilmar International routinely buy from other players in the sector that are involved in peatland destruction. These companies effectively have no policy to exclude any such company that may be implicated in the haze choking Southeast Asia. This dirty oil is then traded to major brands across the globe.”
Greenpeace says it is time for the RSPO to implement a complete ban on deforestation and peatland development.
“The CGF’s action plan on palm oil is about promoting the RSPO, but this so-called sustainability organisation still allows its members to clear rainforest and has failed to ban the clearance and drainage of peatland.”
The US-based World Resources Institute said initial data showed that half of the fires are burning on timber and oil palm plantations.
“Most of the NASA fire alerts are located within the province of Riau, and chiefly within the boundaries of timber plantation and oil palm concessions. About 52 percent of the total fires occur within these concession areas.”
According to Greenpeace, the annual clearing of Indonesia’s peatlands releases some 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases and some put the figure at 2 billion.
Indonesia is now the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, following behind the U.S. and China.